LOS ANGELES — When screenwriter Jared Stern was approached about developing Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” as an animated series, he sought advice from one important woman and the consent of another.
“I mentioned it to my grandmother and she said, ‘That was your favorite book when you were little. You used to read it to me all the time,’” Stern fondly recalled. “I basically learned to read reading this book.”
But he needed more than grandmom behind him. The project required approval from the widow of Theodor Geisel, the singular writer known as Dr. Seuss. So Stern and fellow executive producer Jeff Kleeman made a pilgrimage to her San Diego-area home about five years ago. Audrey Geisel died last year; her husband died in 1991.
“I had to pitch the story to her and it was incredibly scary,” said Stern. “Once it was over, she said something to the effect of, ‘I wondered what you were going to do with this. But I think you really captured it, and you have our blessing.’”
The result is a 13-episode series that debuted Friday on Netflix with a voice cast that includes Michael Douglas as the character who turns up his nose at green eggs and ham and Adam Devine as Sam-I-am, the dish’s cheerleader. Other big-name actors along for the ride include Diane Keaton, Eddie Izzard, Tracy Morgan, John Turturro and Jeffrey Wright. (“Having Ellen DeGeneres as an executive producer certainly helps,” Stern said.)
Stern understood Audrey Geisel’s initial doubts, since he shared them when the project was proposed by Kleeman, president of DeGeneres’ production company. Stern’s first reaction: Why mess with perfection? Then he gave the 1960 book another look.
“I started flipping through it and realized, ‘Oh, it’s an odd couple.’ There’s the grumpy guy who’s closed off to things and a playful guy who’s open to things. And not only that, it’s a road trip because he won’t eat the eggs in a car, on a train, on a boat — here, there and everywhere,” he said, allowing the original story to be opened up while staying true to its message and spirit.
Devine, of the “Pitch Perfect” movies and TV’s “The Righteous Gemstones” and “Modern Family,” said he focused on bringing “manic little kid enthusiasm” to Sam-I-Am.
“I’m basically doing an impression of myself opening Christmas presents.... just how excited you would get when you’re a kid, and you want to explain all your toys and explain how you’re going to play with them,” Devine said.
The series lets him play with his lines. “The dialogue is just so fun. When you actually get through a chunk where you’re doing a lot of Seussian-type dialogue, you feel so good about yourself.”
Stern, whose big-screen animation writing credits include “The Lego Batman Movie” and “Wreck-It Ralph,” has a close familiarity with the various styles of animation, including the now-common CGI. But the majority of the characters and backgrounds in “Green Eggs and Ham” are traditional 2-D hand-drawn animation, which evokes Seuss’ charming storybook illustrations and involved 300 artists over the course of four years of production.
That severely tested her patience, joked DeGeneres. But the result is something parents who remember the book warmly can watch with their kids, she said, and without having their own limits pushed.
“It’s great for kids and it’s great for parents to have on without being annoyed. It’s not going to be somebody singing, ‘Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo,’” she said reciting the omnipresent video ditty. “That could drive parents crazy.”